The social media platform Facebook has turned its attention to disaster response. There have been many conversations over the years about how tech can inform disaster response efforts, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook has been quick to join in.

Social media use during disasters

When a disaster strikes - whether it is natural or the result of human action - people tend to turn to their social media accounts. They use Facebook and Twitter to check in with their friends, to ask if everyone is ok and to let everyone know that they are ok. They use social media platforms to find up to date news and information about the situation as often mainstream new sites can be slower to pick up on what is happening. But, this can also mean that our social media feeds become clogged with messages, and, sometimes, with misleading reports that people treat as if they were factual news.

Facebook's Safety Check feature

Facebook introduced its Safety Check feature to enable people to 'check in' to state that they were safe. Basically, a user can mark themselves as 'safe' if they are in a disaster region and have made it to safety. All of their friends will be able to see this status and this will enable them to see instantly which of their Facebook contacts are safe. One of the first times that this features was used was during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. It has also been used during Hurricaine Haiyan in the Philippines, and in Paris during the attacks at the Bataclan concert hall. Safety Check can be switched on automatically using Facebook's algorithms if they spot something that looks like a disaster unfolding.

Issues with the safety check feature

Some issues have arisen with this feature, for instance people who are nowhere near the disaster zone nevertheless checking themselves in as safe or unsafe and causing unnecessary worry to their Facebook contacts. However, peer disapproval has, in many cases, been enough to stop people from misusing the feature in this way. In addition, Facebook has been criticised for the selectivity with which some people feel it creates Safety Checks. Whilst disasters in the US and Europe usually have a Safety Check enabled instantly, other disasters in other regions of the world are, critics claim, either ignored or inadequately helped by the Safety Check feature. Zuckerberg has publicly addressed these concerns about the 'Western bias' of this disaster response tool and stated that he will make changes to address this issue.

The de-fragmentation of disaster related information

Like having a single hashtag to follow as a disaster unfolds, the Safety Check feature aims to 'de-fragment' information relating to disasters and thus keep it all in one place. This means that people can instantly see one of the most important pieces of information for them: whether or not their friends and loved ones are safe.